The Marine Corps’ professional organization hosts an essay competition every year called the Chase Prize. Entrants are encouraged to "challenge conventional wisdom" and to be "bold." Every few years a winner might get a bit closer to this goal than the norm, but typically—as with professionals everywhere—Marines tend to be cautious when challenging their superiors’ policies in a public forum. Whatever effects the Chase Prize has had over the years, generating genuine and widely-discussed controversy has not been one of them, at least in recent memory.
This year’s winner has proven to be an exception to the rule. Captain Lauren Serrano’s submission was entitled ‘Why Women Do Not Belong in the U.S. Infantry.’ It has generated a fair amount of criticism, both from within and outside of the Corps. Why? Here is Captain Serrano’s thesis: "Although perhaps advantageous to individuals and the national movement for complete gender equality, incorporating women into infantry units is not in the best interest of the Marine Corps or U.S. national security."
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This assertion, on its own, is not what has caused the fuss. After all, a year ago another female Marine captain, Katie Petronio, published an essay in the same publication that hosts the Chase essay competition entitled, ‘Get Over It! We Are Not All Created Equal,’ in which she argued that women don’t belong in the infantry because of the physical differences between the sexes, reflecting in the course of the piece on the toll her service had taken on her own health.
Petronio’s essay generated discussion, but little like the detectably bitter quality of the debate about Captain Serrano’s new discussion of the subject. This is because Serrano goes much further than Petronio in her argument, suggesting that even if some women are exceptions to the physical rule, that it just doesn’t matter:
My argument has little to do with whether women can pass the Infantry Officer Course or Infantry Training Battalion, or endure the hardships of combat. Even those select women who can physically endure the infantry are still posing a threat to the infantry mission and readiness. Female Marines who want to stir the pot by joining the infantry ranks are more interested in their careers than the needs of the Corps—they are selfish. 2dLt Sage Santangelo’s recent article in The Washington Post about why women are failing Infantry Officer Course argued that "the Marine Corps needs to set women up to succeed in combat roles." Why? How will that contribute to a better fighting force, the needs of the Marine Corps, and the success of young enlisted Marines? The time, energy, and conflict associated with setting women up for success in infantry billets will not make the Marine Corps more combat effective.
Sage Santegelo, incidentally, was rewarded for her Washington Post article by General Jim Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, who plucked her out of her designated career path and gave her a plum assignment overseas—basically unheard-of treatment for a Second Lieutenant. One doubts if Captain Serrano is going to receive a similar response, considering her systematic engagement with almost every sacred cow of modern feminism in her essay:
Incorporating women into the infantry does not add to the infantry mission to "locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver and/or repel the enemy assault by fire and close combat." Period. The mission does not say, "with ranks of equal men and women, locate, close with close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver and/or repel the enemy assault by fire and close combat." The implied task is to create an infantry community of warriors that can best accomplish the mission. As all Marines are taught from day one of training, the mission always comes first. …
In addition to theoretical opposition to having women in the infantry, there are also very practical reasons why women do not belong amongst infantrymen. Having women in an infantry unit will disrupt the infantry’s identity, motivational tactics, and camaraderie. The average infantryman is in his late teens or early twenties. At that age, men are raging with hormones and are easily distracted by women and sex. Infantry leaders feed on the testosterone and masculinity of young men to increase morale and motivation and encourage the warrior ethos. … The infantry is the one place where young men are able to focus solely on being a warrior without the distraction of women or political correctness. … Although perhaps not the most polite environment, this is the exact kind of atmosphere that promotes unit cohesion and the brotherly bond that is invaluable. This bond is an essential element in both garrison and combat environments. … No matter how masculine a woman is, she is still female and simply does not mesh with the infantry brotherhood.
Captain Serrano manages to work the sexual assault issue into her argument as well:
Sexual harassment and assault is a huge issue in the military today, and few things are more disruptive. Although already not immune to sexual assaults/harassment, without women amongst their ranks, there are simply fewer opportunities for infantry Marines to be involved in sexual assault/harassment cases. Incorporating women into infantry ranks will increase the number of cases in infantry units, subsequently taking time away from training, readiness, and unit morale. … Some counter-argue that good training and leadership will prevent sexual assault/harassment. The Corps already invests significant time and money on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) annual training and hires full-time SAPR specialists. The issue persists.
The article states in a public forum what many Marines believe privately, but feel they can’t say for fear of being accused of… well, of all the things that Serrano has been accused of over the past few weeks. One blogger and former Marine accused her of "Sororicide," as well as "victim blaming" and, in a turn of phrase nicely reminiscent of totalitarian regimes, of "flawed thinking" on the subject matter of sexual assault.
Another response on the same website suggested ostracizing the essay competition itself for going off-script:
Recent statements by active-duty Marine leaders, supported by an upcoming "60 Minutes" report, show that the Marine Corps leadership is fully committed to including qualified women Marines in the ground combat elements of the Marine Corps. The Gazette’s articles are undermining, not only the efforts of the institution to foster a fully inclusive Corps, but the respect afforded to women Marines. The Marine Corps needs to reign in its professional association or publicly distance itself from its activities.
Finally, the outspoken Anu Bhagwati—a former Marine officer and now the Executive Director of the Service Women’s Action Network, a DC-based feminist pressure group—was quoted in the Marine Corps Times calling Serrano’s essay "archaic, misinformed, and disgraceful." To get the sense of Bhagwati’s view of the world, feast your eyes on this recent tweet:
— Anu Bhagwati (@AnuBhagwati) September 10, 2014
Whatever you were taught about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, let us indeed never forget that it was pretty darned sexist!
It appears that Captain Serrano may be on to something when she suggests that proponents of integrating women into the infantry may have agendas that are in tension with the good of the Marine Corps. And it seems that, judging from the venomous nature of the criticism leveled at Serrano, the Marine Corps Association actually published something that bucks the conventional wisdom. Good for them.